Avery’s Rest

Located in present day Sussex County, near the 17th century frontier Dutch settlement of Whorekill (present-day Lewes) (see map below), Avery’s Rest represents one of the earliest colonial settlements professionally excavated in Delaware.

Non-native occupation at this site began at least by the mid-17th century, when a 300-acre land grant for “Avery’s Rest” was issued in 1666 to Captain John Avery, a mariner for the colony of Maryland who transported tobacco and food stores to Barbados and the West Indies. The full 800-acre tract was granted in 1674 when John Avery, his wife Sarah, and their three daughters moved onto the property (Sellers, 1901).

The Averys’ arrival followed the burning of the Whorekill settlement and surrounding farmsteads in December 1673, an act related to the final reclaiming of the territory by the English (de Valinger, 1950; Weslager, 1988; Weslager, 2016). After John Avery’s death in 1682, his wife remarried and his daughters engaged in a court dispute over ownership of the Avery’s Rest tract (Horle, 1991). The land was eventually partitioned between the daughters, one of whom lived at the site until 1715 (Horle, 1991).

The 11 graves found at the site could thus represent Avery family members, servants, enslaved individuals, or others living and laboring on the farmstead. To further elucidate their ancestry and identities, we conducted bioarchaeological and ancient DNA analyses of the human remains disinterred from the site.

Map of Delaware within North America

Avery’s Rest archaeological site is marked with a star. Map provided by americanhistory.si.edu.

Explain the layout of the burials and initial assessment of biological ancestry based on skeletal analysis. Burials AR01-AR08 were thought to be persons of European ancestry, whereas burials AR09-AR11 were thought to be persons of African ancestry.

Site Map of the Avery’s Rest Archaeological Site

The map displays post holes, structures, a well, fence ditches, refuse features, and burials. Burials AR01–AR08 are located in the southern burial cluster and AR09–AR11 in the northern burial cluster. Image source: XXXXXXXX.

A well-preserved bone from each skeleton was selected for mtDNA analysis. Extraction and sequencing of mtDNA was performed for all 11 skeletons, using appropriate protocols to prevent contamination with modern DNA. The entire control region (CR) of the mtDNA was obtained for these individuals, and the haplogroups to which they belonged ascertained through comparison with reference databases for European and African populations.

The mtDNA data confirmed the osteological assessments of geographical ancestry and identified European and African haplotypes in  the Avery’s Rest individuals. The mtDNAs from the eight individuals in the southern burial cluster belonged to five different European haplotypes (W4a1, H24, H1af, T, and U5b2a1a), with four individuals (two females, one male, and one infant) sharing the same H1af haplotype. The three individuals from the northern burial cluster had three different African haplotypes (L3e3, L3i2, and L0a1a).

Along with the bioarchaeological and documentary evidence, the aDNA findings contribute to our understanding of life on the colonial Delaware frontier. Evidence of maternal relatedness among European-descended individuals at the site demonstrates kin-based settlements in 17th century Delaware and provides preliminary identifications of individuals. The maternal genetic diversity of the individuals with African descent aligns with the routes of the trans-Atlantic slave trade but broadens our understanding of the ancestries of persons involved in it. Burial positioning, osteological pathology, and lack of maternal kinship among individuals of African descent provide tangible evidence for the emergence of racialized labor and society in Delaware during the late 17th century.

We are now completing the analysis of genome variation in the Avery’s Rest individuals, and will soon submit a summary of these data for publication. The results of this analysis shed light on the population dynamics of an early colonial frontier settlement, with European individuals representing multi-generational kin interred next to individuals with diverse African ancestries that include a father-son pair. These findings highlight the diversity of persons, both kin and non-kin, present in early colonial frontier settlements, and the extent of geographic ruptures experienced by those forcibly enslaved at the incipience of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in North America.

Project Publications

Fleskes RE, Bruwelheide KS, West FL, Owsley DW, Griffith DR, Barca KG, Cabana GS, Schurr TG. 2019. Ancient DNA and bioarchaeological perspectives on European and African diversity and relationships on the colonial Delaware frontier. Am J Phys Anthropol 170(2):232-245. Epub 2019 Jul 4.  Link

Fleskes RE, Schurr TG. 2022. Initial ancient DNA investigations at Avery’s Rest: Update and Prospects. In. Griffth DE, editor. Wilmington: Archaeological Society of Delaware Bulletin (Submitted May 2022).

Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology
University of Pennsylvania
421 University Museum
3260 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6398, USA
Tel: 215-573-2656